The future of the left since 1884

How should Labour engage with the Europe debate?

For the next 18 months, Europe will dominate the national political conversation. What part Labour will play, however, is still up for grabs. Wary of sharing a platform with David Cameron after the Scottish independence referendum, some in the party...


For the next 18 months, Europe will dominate the national political conversation. What part Labour will play, however, is still up for grabs. Wary of sharing a platform with David Cameron after the Scottish independence referendum, some in the party see little to be gained from getting involved in the cross-party campaign. And there is the added, nostalgic temptation of sitting by and watching the Tory party rip itself apart over Europ – just as it did in John Major’s day. But if the Labour party stands aside from one of the most important debates about the future of our country in decades, it will not just marginalise itself politically, it will prove that it is not fit for government. So how should it engage?

In essence, the referendum on EU membership will be in two parts. The first is a renegotiation that will last, most likely, until the end of the year. The second is a referendum campaign proper, likely to be next year.

Labour’s role in the first part seems difficult to identify as it is very much the David Cameron show. Cameron has been touring Europe’s capitals trying to secure agreement on his four main issues: reducing market regulation and signing trade deals; changing the relations between Eurozone ins and outs; enhancing the role of national parliaments; and changing access to benefits for migrants.

The prime minister hopes to wrap up his negotiations by December and take his package to the people. Meanwhile, for the ‘out’ side the renegotiation period is a chance to portray the current EU as useless and try to foist on the government an impossible reform agenda. The wily Mathew Elliot and his Business for Britain group have put this strategy into practice with their 1,000 page report, serialised in the Daily Telegraph, Change, or Go.

In this first period, it is vital to forward a centre-left reform agenda to prevent Labour from looking like a bystander with nothing to say, ceding the ideological momentum to Cameron’s right-of-centre programme. A centre-left reform agenda should balance the quest for liberalisation and reducing red-tape with the promise of growth and social protection, and measures to help the losers from free movement and free trade. But it must also avoid the trap of the ‘out’ campaign, and ensure that this reform agenda is both realistic and relevant to Britain’s interests.

But as we move into the second, campaign phase, the ‘in’ case cannot just be about arguing for a new, slightly improved (or worsened, depending on your perspective), transactional deal from Europe. Rather the ‘in crowd’ should be putting forward the patriotic case for British membership. In doing this, it should learn three lessons from the Scottish referendum.

Fundamental to this is balancing the rhetoric of risk against the narrative of hope. Clearly, the heart of the ‘in’ campaign will be to focus strongly the risks of leaving. Frankly, the ‘out’ side’s arguments don’t add up and put the whole economy in jeopardy. But a cold-blooded, reductionist campaign may win the battle but lose the war. To win a decisive victory and avoid the risk of a neverendum, the ‘in’ side needs to anchor its accounts of the risks in a bigger patriotic story about what kind of country we want to be.

Back in the mid-1990s I experienced these debates with a report I wrote for Demos that argued for rebranding Britain by drawing on its history as a diverse, multinational, outward-looking, creative island. The response of the public to an attempt by the left to define and engage with our national story was surprisingly enthusiastic – it showed that it is always better for us to have that conversation than to allow others to define what patriotism means. And many of the stories we put forward at that time were picked up and brought to life by Danny Boyle in the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, endorsed by a Conservative prime minister and mayor of London. It is that spirit that the ‘in’ side needs to find now. It should turn the referendum into a choice between two different stories of our national future – between Danny Boyle and Nigel Farage.

The ‘in’ campaign must avoid the trap of simply talking about economics while leaving the other side to own national sovereignty. Business for Britain and other groups like them understand that the economic arguments are stacked against them. Their goal, therefore, is to confuse the issue. By shoving as many business spokespeople as they can in front of cameras and microphones, talking ceaselessly about the problems of red tape, of Greece, of austerity they will seek to show that while the economics is contested space, the only way to regain control of our borders and our sovereignty is to leave.

The ‘in’ campaign will need to try to do the opposite – showing that they have a plan to make free movement fair while claiming that the economic argument is beyond contestation. But I hope they do not leave it at that. The ‘in’ campaign must do all it can to claim the mantle of self-government. The lesson from Scotland is that the Yes campaign succeeded in turning the referendum into a carnival of democracy; voting ‘Yes’ was seen as a positive and affirmative act. The pro-Europeans – who are, after all, offering this referendum – should try to make it into a similarly hopeful action, in contrast to the backward-looking, gloom-laden Eurosceptics.

Reframing the debate will help with this. Undecided voters in the referendum need to understand that the biggest threat to Britain’s sovereignty is not in Brussels but in Beijing. As China begins to remake the world order, the heft of EU membership in reality gives the British people a much greater control of their affairs. That’s not to say that reform isn’t needed. In addition to supporting some of David Cameron’s measures to strengthen national parliaments and the voices of non-eurozone members, Labour should push for a root-and-branch change to how decision-making is done in Brussels. But pro-Europeans can show that leaving the EU – as Norway has done – hinders rather than helps the cause of self-government.

At the same time as Britain contemplates its membership of the EU, an epochal shift is happening to politics in the continent. Across Europe, insurgent parties – Syriza, Podemos, Alternative fur Deutschland, the Danish People’s Party – are smashing the old political order, fuelled by a rising perception of division between the elites and the people. And at first glance, the ‘in crowd’ looks like an elite affair. There will be all the leaders of the main political parties, the CBI, much of the business community and many national newspapers on board.

So the challenge for the ‘in’ side is to break free from this perception, unless it wants to risk the ceaseless attacks of voters disenchanted with politics as usual. To combat this, the ‘in’ side will need a plurality of voices, and voices that ‘speak human’. And its narrative will need to be more human too and develop less abstract arguments, dealing with how individuals and communities will be affected, rather than throwing around frightening, but essentially meaningless, statistics.

Labour must go into this debate with confidence and conviction. By developing a vision of a more social Europe it can show how the EU can benefit people as well as the companies they work for and the City of London. By playing a full part in the cross-party campaign as well as developing its own organisation, Labour can help to win a vote that will be critical to the country’s national interest. And by putting forward a vision for a bigger future for Britain, Labour will also take a step towards proving it is ready to be a party of government.

Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.